I recently finished reading Emma Lou Thayne’s spiritual autobiography, “The Place of Knowing.” Emma Lou was a deeply spiritual person with roots in Mormonism and a fondness for other forms of spirituality including meditation, card readings, and above all poetry. She wrote the lyrics to the familiar Mormon hymn “Where Can I Turn For Peace?” which was born of her experience with a daughter suffering with mental illness. As I was reading her stories I felt her heart was big enough to encompass all things, including me if we had met in life. I felt connected to her.
In a chapter called “The Stations of the Cross” she tells of her friendship with painter Paul Fini. The two bonded as painters and became fast friends. One day Paul showed Emma Lou a series he had painted of the stations of the cross. She loved the pieces so much he later left them to her when he passed away. He and his partner David both died of AIDS. Through Paul, Emma Lou felt called to promote AIDS awareness at a time it was poorly understood. Several times over the years she displayed Paul’s paintings with a series of poems she wrote to accompany them. One year she was invited to participate in a World AIDS Day celebration, at which she shared the story of her friendship with Paul. I would love to have been there. She was a Mormon building bridges before it was cool.
People like Emma Lou inspire and baffle me. It is one thing to work for a cause you can’t avoid. I had no choice but to get involved in LGBT Mormon life. It is mine. But it is another thing to willingly invest your heart in a work you had no obligation to join. It defies rationality. That is why I am not surprised when Mormons are generally apathetic to the systemic flaws that complicate the experience of LGBT people in church. I may go so far as to say I don’t blame them. It makes little sense to worry about distant problems in a system that works for you. Those who do care are the wonderfully perplexing exception. They defy the odds. They are the good in the world that never should have happened. As far as I understand it, that is the definition of grace.
Bless you, Emma Lou, wherever you are.
To learn more about Emma Lou Thayne, visit her website or these articles from Deseret News, Dialogue, and Salt Lake Tribune.